Ly Tong’s Hunger Strike by José Villarreal

A photograph of hunger striker, Ly Tong.  The image is looking up at Ly, he is speaking into a microphone and pointing up toward the sky with the index finger on his left hand.  He is wearing a military style hat, sunglasses, and a yellow and red scarf.  He has a enlarged newspaper clipping hanging from a string around his neck.  In large, bold letters on the top it reads, "Hunger Strike.", below "MADISON broke the law."
Ly Tong, a Vietnamese expatriate activist is on a hunger strike to keep attention on the “Little Saigon” business district issue, at San Jose City Hall on February 19, 2008. (LiPo Ching/Mercury News)

In November 2007, the San Jose City Council approved the naming of the prominent Vietnamese neighborhood of Story and McLaughlin Road in Eastside San Jose to “Saigon Business District.” This decision came without any community involvement and the name was pushed through by, then City Council member, Madison Nguyen. The Vietnamese community felt slighted when it came to this decision because they wanted their neighborhood to be named “Little Saigon”, which was the name of many Vietnamese communities throughout the United States. The name “Little Saigon” is one of the symbols that unite all Vietnamese in America, most came to the U.S. as refugees, because Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam until the communist takeover of the country in 1975.This decision caused an uproar for the next few months with protests in front of City Hall and through this arose a hero amongst the Vietnamese community.

Ly Tong was that hero. He was described as a freedom fighter for his dedication towards the ideal of democracy and the injustices he fought against throughout his life. Before this, he was known for hijacking an airliner in Vietnam and dropping thousands of leaflets calling for revolution against the communist government of Vietnam. He also did something similar in Cuba, dropping leaflets encouraging the Cuban people to rise up and revolt against the communist government of Fidel Castro. This made Ly Tong a revolutionary hero among democratic activists and a parade was thrown in his honor in Florida by the Cuban-Americans.

A sand colored sign, with an elongated Vietnamese flag across the top reads "Welcome to Little Saigon San Jose." A smaller logo sits on the left and it says "Little Saigon, San Jose Foundation." Behidn the sign is a green shrub and a portion of a blue Toyota Tacoma.
The Little Saigon Sign located in East San Jose.

Here in San Jose, the Vietnamese community was adamant on the name change because it was remnant of the communist Vietnam they had left behind years ago. Ly Tong stepped up and decided to start a hunger strike on February 15, 2008 and did not plan to end the hunger strike until the City Council voted to change the name to “Little Saigon.” He said, “ If they agree to change the name to ‘Little Saigon’ I’ll stop, otherwise, I’ll continue until I die. And if I die, the council will bear the burden of my death for their whole life.” With the support of the Vietnamese community, people came out in droves to support Ly Tong and the amount of people that crowded City Hall was reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter protests we have seen in these past few months.

After 19 days of no eating and camping out in front of City Hall, on March 4, 2008 the City Council had an emergency meeting to rescind the name “Saigon Business District.” They decided to leave it up to the community to name the neighborhood, but they would not fund the sign and instead the “Little Saigon” sign would be privately funded by business owners from that community. Ly Tong and the Vietnamese community had their victory they had so desperately longed for.

20 people stand in front of city hall, their backs to the camera.  Most are wearing a light yellow shirt.  City hall is in the background and there are various U.S and Vietnam flags in the foreground.  Two long banners read "We support Ly Tong." and another reads, "Support Ly Tong - Ly Tong Freedom Fighter."

I wrote this piece to bring awareness to the heroics Ly Tong displayed in 2008. Many current Instagram users were too young to remember Ly Tong’s efforts. I was old enough during this time but was not involved in civics to understand the value of his efforts. I recently learned of this hunger strike and the courage Ly Tong demonstrated and was instantly inspired.

His story is such an inspiration for me because it shows the boldness and bravery that Ly Tong had for his community. The fortitude that he had makes me question what we as a community are doing to combat the police brutality that is going on in our city? He was willing to put his life on the line for just a sign! What are we willing to do when the San Jose Police continue to beat us down and even kill us?

I hope that Ly Tong is forever remembered in the annals of San Jose History. Ly Tong died of lung cancer on April 5, 2019. May he rest in power!

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